ASTANA – Czech Ambassador Eliška Žigová is in Kazakhstan to help bring this country and hers together – or, more specifically, to bring Czechs of all kinds to the steppe.
The job can be a bit one-sided sometimes, she said in an April 2 interview with The Astana Times. As she discovered when she arrived, Kazakhs often know quite a lot about the Czech Republic – from its beer, which is much appreciated in this part of the world, to its spas and famous crystal work. “But from our side, people know almost nothing,” she admitted. “So it would be nice to inform them, to bring more tourists.”
Czechs would be very interested in Kazakhstan’s natural beauty, she said, especially if there were tour packages on offer. “Czechs are hikers, they like to go to the mountains, to see something new, but they don’t know about this place,” Žigová said.
The ambassador herself is a hiker, and makes a point of talking to the people she meets in small steppe towns and on train journeys. This is one of the perks of this mission, she notes: the ability to communicate in Russian, and how relaxed conversation with local people is.
“I feel very free to speak to anybody,” she said. This was not as easy in some of her previous missions, in the Middle East, for example. Here, Žigová says, people are open; she feels safe and she has an opportunity to learn directly from Kazakhstan’s people how they feel about their country and their government – which, she notes, is not exactly the same as the broad black and white strokes seen in what is written about the country.
“I feel very good here,” Žigová said. “I’m free, it’s interesting, it makes sense for a Czech diplomat to be here.”
Part of why it makes sense to be here now is the 2012 visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the concurrent Kazakh-Czech business forum that led to the signing of some $250 million worth of agreements and joint ventures. Interest in investing in Kazakhstan has been growing, and in 2013, sales between the two countries just exceeded $1 billion, this newspaper reported in November.
“Now, a lot of business … is turning from Russia to Central Asia,” Žigová said. “And if you say Central Asia, you see Kazakhstan. We also see some potential in Kyrgyzstan, but [it’s mainly] Kazakhstan.”
The ambassador was surprised at the intensity of the interest before she arrived. When a new ambassador is appointed, she said, a meeting is usually arranged with interested businessmen and other parties. “And you know, it was a full room – people were standing in line to introduce themselves. And I realised that they are willing – some had never been to Kazakhstan – to come, to try to start to make businesses here.”
She hopes to encourage them to come and to stay. “[President Nursultan] Nazarbayev told us very clearly: ‘We need you here; we need joint ventures.’ Because they also want the know-how,” Žigová said. “They want to be more connected to Europe.” Trade policy in Kazakhstan is like foreign policy, she observed – it looks to all sides. “[A]nd Europe is coming,” she said. “But it takes time. And the point of stability is very important for business.”
Žigová’s mission began shortly before the visit by Czech President Miloš Zeman in November 2014, which was both an exciting and an exhausting way to start her work here, she confessed. The visit “was kind of a kick-start for our cooperation,” she said. They followed up with a round-table meeting with Kazakhstan’s ministries, as well as interested business parties, where they talked about how to maintain this momentum.
The key areas of cooperation in focus today are infrastructure development and transit infrastructure – which the ambassador notes dovetail nicely with the Nurly Zhol economic programme – as well as food processing, producing pharmaceutical and health equipment, and medical research. Czech companies are already active here in food processing and building roads, and deals are on the table on health cooperation, the ambassador reported. Civil aviation is another area the Czech Republic is hoping to break into – building both light aircraft and airports for Kazakhstan’s domestic market. “These are the main areas in which we can cooperate and in which we can compete with bigger countries,” she said.
Because there is competition in Kazakhstan these days. “Now is the time,” she said. “Central Asia is opening, and there is big competition!” However, here, it must be remembered that trade relationships follow the political bilateral connection, she commented. “I want to push my people to come,” the ambassador noted. “[T]o trade with Kazakhstan, you need very good bilateral relations on an official level. … It’s very important.” She’s hoping for high-level visits this year in both directions, and would like to arrange more working consultations on a variety of levels.
Person-to-person contacts in general are important to the ambassador. There are some 1,500 students from Kazakhstan studying in the Czech Republic now, Žigová said, and the embassy waiting room is full of people seeking visas every day. “I feel happy when I see so many people asking for visas,” she said.
But though they try their best, not everyone can be granted a visa, she admits – a situation she hopes to see change soon. And while not every Kazakh student in the Czech Republic will come home with an advanced degree, they will come back speaking some Czech and with a new connection to the country, she said. For that reason, Žigová is hoping to increase and formalise education exchanges – to encourage more students to study in the Czech Republic in English and to get Kazakhstan to more formally promote education in her country. “We would like to … make some kind of agreement, to have more control from the Kazakh side, to come with people who are able to study. … to have more of an education pipeline,” the ambassador said.
Kazakh people seem to like Czech people and the Czech Republic, Žigová has noticed over time here. She can’t put a finger on why, but she appreciates it. “It is very interesting that these two countries, even though they are so far apart and different historically and in point of view … how close they are, with this Soviet experience and, perhaps, with being small countries between big neighbours and learning how to survive.”